The Capitol Should Remain A Secular Place by Judith Barrington (April 1999)

When I came to Oregon from Britain in 1976, the concept of the separation of church and state was new to me. There, the head of state–the queen–was also the head of the Church of England. Prayer and politics could mingle peacefully.

I quickly came to appreciate the American way: The United States, committed to supporting the diversity of its peoples’ customs and beliefs, clearly needed to be run on a strictly secular basis. But now that I have lived here for 23 years and am a U.S. citizen, I find that legislatures around the country more and more are using the services of chaplains. Ironically, prayer has crept into U.S. politics in a way that has never happened in Britain.

Frank Carpenter, Oregon’s chaplain, is described as “unofficial,” presumably because he is paid through donations and not by the state. Yet he is given free rein to approach legislators and conduct a Bible study class in the Republican caucus room. House Speaker Lynn Snodgrass, R-Damascus, attends the weekly class, as does Rep. Bill Witt, R-Cedar Mill, for whose 1994 U.S. House campaign the chaplain worked as a field director.

In 1983, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that legislatures could hire chaplains as long as there was no promotion of one religion over another–a ruling that seems unrealistic. A Baptist chaplain may be acceptable to Episcopalians or Methodists, but what about Jews, Muslims and other non Christians?

Furthermore, Oregon’s chaplain is not merely a Baptist Christian; he is someone who has participated in the campaign of a legislator on a moral crusade. Can anyone truly believe that the chaplain has no political agenda of his own?

Republicans such as Witt make no attempt to hide their crusade, based on their reading of the Christian Bible–beliefs that are often in conflict with those of the majority of Amer icans, who interpret the Bible differently, refer to a different holy book or choose no religion.

It is suggested that the Bible study classes at the Capitol are harmless because those who attend them do not discuss policy. Even so, the sessions do not belong in legislators’ workdays. If the speaker wishes to consult An Introduction to Biblical Ethics before voting on the people’s business, that is her concern. How she arrives at her views is a private matter. But surely it is a violation of our predecessors’ intentions when a Christian interpretation of the Bible is the focus of meetings in the Capitol.

It is also suggested that this chaplain can be of use as a peacemaker. To attend to the relationships between lawmakers is a laudable goal, but if this is a real need, it should be met not by a self-appointed religious leader, but rather by a secular, professional mediator, paid out of taxpayer dollars. And if someone must be on hand to help lawmakers at times of stress resulting from illness or family problems, it should be a professional, not a religious counselor.

In wartime, Catholic priests, rabbis and other religious leaders served alongside Protestant pastors. Our Legislature could possibly imitate such diversity by rotating chaplains drawn from different religions, but this would still not be representative of all Oregonians.

A Baptist minister in the Capitol makes a statement of bias just as clear as an all-male Legislature would make–and that bias, too, once seemed harm less to most people. The Capitol should be a secular place of business, and lawmakers who want to pray together should do so off the premises.

This article originally appeared in the Oregonian, on February 25, 1999, and is reprinted with the permission of the author.

Judith Barrington was born in Brighton, England and has lived in Oregon since 1976. She is the author of two poetry books and, most recently, Writing the Memoir: From Truth to Art (1997). Her many awards include the Freedom of Expression Award from the American Civil Liberties Union of Oregon. She is the co-director of The Flight of the Mind, summer writing workshops for women.

Freedom From Religion Foundation